In Austin, Avoiding the Rush or Carpooling Can Pay Off
By Katherine Heighway
AUSTIN — Metropia, a smartphone app aimed at easing traffic, is picking up speed among Austin drivers, going from approximately 60,000 trips by users in 2015 to more than 200,000 in 2016, according to the company that created the app.
Tucson-based Metropia Inc., which beta-tested the app in Austin in 2014 and launched it in 2015, helps drivers change their habits to reduce traffic congestion. The app rewards users with gift cards or a donation to charity if they carpool or avoid rush hours.
“We’re trying to get people to shift out of peak traffic,” said Mia Zmud, a Metropia vice president. “So we’re trying to incentivize people to leave earlier than when peak traffic starts.”
In 2016, Austin ranked No. 15 for the worst traffic nationwide among cities with a population over 800,000, according to the TomTom Traffic Index. The index is generated from GPS data by Dutch-based TomTom NV.
Yi-Chang Chiu, an associate engineering professor at the University of Arizona, created the app in 2011 to reduce road congestion, Zmud said. The app also launched in Tucson in 2015 and has since expanded to El Paso and New York.
In Metropia’s rewards system, users earn points when they travel in lighter traffic. If drivers went from the Texas Capitol to The Domain shopping mall, about 11 miles north, they would receive 50 points at 5:45 p.m. If app users left 15 minutes earlier, when traffic is typically heavier, they would earn just 20 points.
Users can cash in points for gift cards from Amazon, Starbucks and other vendors. Twelve hundred points, for example, earn a $5 Amazon card. Users can also donate a meal to Meals on Wheels for 500 points.
Zmud said Metropia picked Austin for beta-testing because of its challenging traffic and its reputation for adopting new technology. “It’s a high tech community, and people are open to trying out new things,” she said.
Metropia users can see how much carbon dioxide they saved by avoiding heavy traffic. For every 100 pounds of CO2 saved, American Forests, a nonprofit conservation group, plants a tree. Burning a gallon of ethanol-free gasoline produces about 20 pounds of CO2, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
American Forests planted more than 5,000 trees between September 2014 and December 2016 thanks to app users in Austin, Zmud said. She added that, for the same period, Metropia saved the city 538,000 pounds of CO2 emissions and Austin drivers 17,000 hours in time spent commuting.
Metropia employs four people in Austin and has 25 workers companywide. It plans to expand service to Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; Phoenix; Denver; and Houston by late 2017 or 2018, Zmud said. The app is free to users. The company generates advertising revenue from gift-card providers, as well as contracts with government agencies.
In Austin, Metropia has a contract with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, and in El Paso, with the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority and Texas Department of Transportation. Zmud said the company is profitable, but declined to disclose specifics.
The Austin Transportation Department provides Metropia with data, said department Assistant Director Jim Dale in a telephone interview—information, for example, on low-water crossings and school zones that helps drivers make wiser driving decisions. In return, Metropia offers the city data such as driving behavior, user destinations, and travel time and speed.
“It’s everyone working together in cooperation to solve traffic, which is kind of a neat little concept,” Zmud said.
The mobility authority, a government agency financed by tolls and federal and state funds that manages transportation in Williamson and Travis counties, has partnered with Metropia. Mike Heiligenstein, the agency’s executive director, said in a telephone interview that the authority expects the app to be more effective after it integrates additional data. “[I]t’s working, but it’s not at its full potential yet,” he said.
By summer, Metropia hopes to add incentives to encourage commuters to use alternative transportation, such as buses and bicycles, Zmud said.